This post was produced as part of the UW Comm Department’s undergraduate Entrepreneurial Journalism course
By Sarah Radmer
It’s a small farming town in rural Eastern Washington. The community saw its peak in the 1940s; the storefronts on main street still reflect the glory of those days. In recent years the town has been in a slow decline and people moved away. Families still take pride in their homes, they cut their grass, but they just don’t have the money for upkeep. It’s almost as if the American dream lost its way at some point.
That town is the manifestation of the idea of “faded Americana.” This became the theme of the new zombie video game State of Decay, which will be released in June for XBOX Live Arcade. The game is the first from Seattle startup Undead Labs.
State of Decay isn’t about how the gamer survives in the minutes or hours after the zombies start to attack. The open-world game focuses on how survivors handle the next few months. It isn’t about unloading automatic guns onto slow-paced, dim-witted creatures hungry for your brain. Instead, it’s a game of survival, where people from all walks of life band together to battle a common, brain-hungry, enemy. State of Decay focuses on issues of depression, mental health and a dwindling resource of supplies.
But of course, survivors do have to battle zombies, and many (but not all) of the weapons they have to chose from are those that would be found in this small rural town: shovels, axes and hunting rifles.
“It’s also about setting up a society that still channels some of the ideals we had in our former society but still gives us the ability to make quick decisions and survive this threat,” Jeff Strain, Undead Labs founder said.
Undead Labs was founded in 2009 by Strain, an industry veteran, former Blizzard employee and ArenaNet founder. When Strain left AreaNet, he knew he was leaving the comfort of a large team. But he wanted to be back in the core development, with his “sleeves rolled up.” And he is, wearing a button-up shirt, rolled to his elbows, over a graphic tee.
“Every single person here is brilliant,” he said of his 25-person staff. “It really gives us the ability to do ambitious audacious things with a moderately sized team.”
In the years since Undead Labs began, the zombie game industry has exploded with TV shows like Walking Dead, movies like Zombieland and other video games like the Left for Dead franchise.
So isn’t the industry too overrun with zombie video games? Yes, says UW communications professor and resident video game expert Dr. Ken Rufo.
“I’m sick of cookie cutter zombie games,” Rufo said “But they’re there because people continue to buy them. The market still tolerates them quite a bit, but they can lack personality.”
Zombies, Rufo said, are an easy villain.
They are an easy target, State of Decay developer Brant Fitzgerald said, but that’s part of their appeal.
“You’re doing them a favor when you put them out of your misery,” Fitzgerald said. “Zombies are already dead, you’re not hurting anybody.”
But this popularity doesn’t worry Strain too much. “I think the zombie genre is a core genre now, it’s not a niche anymore.”
For Strain, he and his team were taking a genre they all love and capturing the “core essence of what makes the genre fun and enduring,” something the industry had been missing.
One of the biggest challenges wasn’t from within the company, it was the technology they were building for. With seven-year-old consoles built for first-person shooter games, an open world game like State of Decay challenges the equipment. “We’re pushing the hardware to the absolute maximum,” Strain said.
Even though he’s positive about the genre, Strain is waiting to see what shifts and turns the industry takes — especially with new consoles and mobile gaming — before he guides the company in its next direction.
For now, Strain, Fitzgerald and the rest of the staff are preparing the game for its XBOX launch. In the future, the team plans to release State of Decay on Steam for PC gamers. For Fitzgerald — who calls State of Decay his “career” game — this launch has been a long time coming.
“I liken it to ‘this kid is ready to go to kindergarten and it’s time to walk him to the bus’” he said. “And it really does feel that way because we’ve been working on it for so long.”